Holy Rock 'n' Rollers
In Hicksville, Long Island, on any given Sunday afternoon, pierced and tattooed teenagers in black clothing gather to listen and watch as groups of kids like themselves tear their fingertips on guitar strings and scream unintelligibly into microphones. All the elements of the indie scene announce themselves: the spiky haircuts, the leather, combat boots, the wide eyes, the acne. At one recent show, Matt Koldinski, the lead singer of the band Legacy, muddled his lyrics with screams and threw his head back in ecstasy. To those who assembled, this was music in all its soul-baring transcendence.
Then, in a break between songs, Koldinski took the mike and did something that would be unthinkable at most hardcore shows. Panting and solemn, he appealed to his audience of peers to come up to him after the show, to talk about their problems and their confusion, to open their hearts to him. He has been there, he can relate, he says. And he has found the answer. "The reason I'm here, that the band is here, is that we love Jesus," he says. "He's everything to us. And no matter what we do wrong, we'll never lose that love. So if you have any problems, come up, say God loves me, let me help you find the way."
Legacy and the seven other bands gathered to perform this Sunday are just a few examples of the exploding number of Christian rock bands that have formed over the past decade to express and evangelize their faith. Each lead singer, after prayer ("let our words sing like daggers of truth into their hearts, dear Lord," one band member intones, hands clasped) echoes Legacy's invitation for connection, and it appears to be working. Christian music is the only format that has increased sales in the past year--this year it'll crack the 50-million-album mark--and it is poised to eclipse country music in sales, according to Rick Welke at Radio and Records magazine. He says nearly 500 bands have been signed to major labels, and that doesn't include the innumerable unsigned garage bands around the country that perform in venues like this storefront church just off Jerusalem Avenue, past Jericho Bagels.
It makes a kind of sense that these disaffected kids have found hope and meaning in their own "personal relationships with Jesus," in their literal reading of the Gospel, and in their collective desire to spread the word--in their own words. And yet it's still surprising to see these punks in metal cuffs and fatigues, the girls in too much eye makeup, the guys in too much hair dye, setting up a table at this show to dispense leaflets against pornography, masturbation and, most significant, abortion. That part is thanks to Rock For Life, an organization that launched almost ten years ago when Bryan Kemper, then a mohawked security guard trying to make it in the hardcore scene, says he saw a woman lying on a table at a Los Angeles abortion clinic, which he interpreted as a sign from God that he should get into activism. "God gave me a literal vision for Rock for Life. I saw the concerts, the kids in the streets. I knew from that moment on that's what my life had to be." That moment was more than ten years ago. Since then, more than 100,000 kids have signed Rock for Life's pledges to work to end abortion. There are more than eighty youth chapters nationwide, generating tables at hundreds of shows like this one every week.
I've seen kids wearing the T-shirts, from skate parks in Portland, Oregon, to the New York City subway: black with white block letters that read, You Will Not Silence Our Message. You Will Not Mock Our God. You Will Stop Killing Our Generation. In addition to the tables and T-shirts, Rock For Life participates in more standard forms of political activism, like organizing speakouts and protests, through their position in the youth outreach wing of the American Life League. Chapter members also hold prayer and worship services in front of abortion clinics and pass out literature in front of high schools.
Rock For Life finds its biggest constituency at Christian rock festivals every summer, a dozen gigantic Jesuspaloozas across the nation, drawing more than a half-million people combined--festivals with names like Kingdombound, Alive and Sonshine, which director Bob Poe began two decades ago. Back then, Christian rock was a marginal genre. In the early 1980s he'd host seven or eight bands for a small crowd. "That's all the Christian world had to offer," he says. "Now we have 125 bands and turn away more than twice that many." As evangelism has spread ferociously throughout the country in the past several years, the Christian music industry has flourished in tandem.
The Christian rock festival has become the superchurch for the thrashing masses and the ultimate mobilizing force for antiabortionists. Says Bryan Kemper, "It's one thing to hear a message in a church, a message at school, to hear a message in an institution where you're supposed to hear a message that isn't coming from you, it's coming from a quote-unquote authority. The whole concert scene is supposed to go, 'Let go.' We're bringing a message there where people have guards down, where people are open to listen. In school, kids' guards are up, at a concert they're open to a lot of stuff. It's on their turf. It's their own identity. And music is such a huge part of every kid's life--music connects almost everybody--when you have that passion in the music, the singer says, 'Hey, stand up for this, look into this,' it causes kids to look into it and stand up like nothing else."